It may sound counterintuitive, but diamonds are the key to a new technique that could provide a very low-cost alternative to multimillion-dollar medical imaging and drug-discovery devices -- a development sure to intrigue supply chain heads and hospital executives looking to shave dollars off their spend.
And many want to do just that. Hospitals are spending about $10 million more a year in the supply chain than is necessary, according to a 2017 Navigant study. Supply chain represents 30 percent of hospital operations, ranking second only to labor in cost.
A team led by scientists at the Department of Energy's Lawrence Berkeley National Laboratory and UC Berkeley discovered how to exploit defects in nanoscale and microscale diamonds and potentially enhance the sensitivity of magnetic resonance imaging and nuclear magnetic resonance systems. That would effectively eliminate the need for costly and bulky superconducting magnets.
MRI machines are employed to locate cancerous tumors and aid in the development of treatment plans, while NMR machines are used to examine the atomic-scale structure and chemistry of drug compounds and other molecules.
The new technique, described recently in the Science Advances journal, could lead to the direct use of these tiny diamonds for rapid and enhanced biological imaging. Researchers will also seek to transfer this special tuning, known as spin polarization, to a harmless fluid such as water, and to inject the fluid into a patient for faster MRI scans. The high surface area of the tiny particles is key in this effort, authors said.
Enhancing this spin polarization in the electrons of the diamonds' atoms can be likened to aligning some compass needles pointing in many different directions to the same direction. These "hyperpolarized" spins could provide a sharper contrast for imaging than conventional, more expensive superconducting magnets.
The development could have significant commercial implications, since some of the most advanced MRI and NMR machines can be incredibly expensive and out-of-reach for some hospitals and research institutions. That would expand the market for MRI and NMR technology, and potentially shrink the devices from room-sized to about the size of a bench top.
The ideal size for the diamonds, the authors said, was about one to five microns, which can be manufactured in an economical way by converting graphite into diamond.